Recently, there’s been conversation about books recommended by Common Core. For the post of the week, we looked at a recent post about the Common Core booklist and what that means for students. Essentially, it looked at how a recommended reading list becomes the end all be all. Books on the list are to be read and books off the list are ignored. This puts a lot of power in the hands of those creating the book lists. I’ve previously looked at how diversity is something lacking in these books, however that’s more a symptom of a larger problem. The issue with power and authority in our country and-even more broadly-our world is inextricably tied with every prejudice and injustice that happens.
I did the International Baccalaureate Program in high school, which focused heavily on the issues of authority. My entire junior year’s english class looked at race and gender and how power structures are influenced by them. The books we read were reflective of these themes. The God of Small Things looks at twins growing up in India, specifically focusing on class-based discriminations between castes and gender-based discrimination. We also read Woman at Point Zero which looked at the life of an Egyptian woman and the extreme discrimination she faced and the life she led because of that.
In addition to both books being written by women of color, they also challenged the existing power structures in their communities and caused our class to have uncomfortable discussions about them. I think that was an incredibly valuable experience as a junior in high school. I’m white and middle class, so I’m in a position where I could theoretically ignore much of the injustice going on in the world which would therefore uphold the power structures that let them happen. But to have a class where we were told we would be made uncomfortable was so important, because realizing that I felt uncomfortable just discussing racism in a classroom made me realizing how uncomfortable it must be to face discrimination at that level on a daily basis. That class challenged our beliefs and forced us to look beyond our own experiences and sympathize with others-something that is very needed in today’s political atmosphere. We also read 1984 which is a staple of many English classrooms. This classic also dealt with themes of challenging authority and questioning those in charge, and, while that ultimately fails, it encourages readers to be critical of the world they live in.
Senior year took a more theoretical approach to looking at authority. We did have to read and analyze classics like The Great Gatsby and Walt Whitman (both of which I love and found very valuable), however we also had to read books that are less common in English classrooms. Now, The Stranger and Handmaid’s Tale aren’t exactly unheard of in English classrooms, but the way they were treated was incredibly important. The Stranger was taught in conjunction with a historical background of French Algeria and nihilism. The book forced us to contemplate if the world is really worth any of it (I will warn that for second semester seniors, nihilism was a pretty easy concept to get on board with). It challenges the status quo. Nihilists don’t exactly make for the best participants in a overtly capitalist society like the one we live in where working is valued above all. The Handmaid’s Tale was about power structures and challenged us to think about the system we live in today. Thinking about what can cause a society like that in The Handmaid’s Tale and how that society can continue existing is important when our society is and continues to be so flawed.
We also looked at Never Let Me Go, which was one of the most important books I think I’d ever read. This may be because it came at a time where I was about to go through the largest transition I ever had (even though I only moved thirty minutes away from my home, that was the first time I moved that I could remember), but this book really challenged the way I thought. It looked at ethical issues in a mysterious way and dealt with adolescence, the ephemeral nature of life, and even went to question in depth what it meant to be human. Never Let Me Go challenges not only authority, but also the way that we look at ourselves and think about who and where we are.
Now, you may be wondering: why on earth did she just give us a detailed run down of the major themes of the last two years of her high school english class? And this is where I loop back around to Common Core and other recommended reading lists. When people in power make the reading lists, often it seems that they downplay books about challenging authority. Which makes sense, because they’re who have the potential to loose power from people questioning authority.
This has serious ramifications when that attitude is shared by the more privileged individuals in society. For instance, earlier this year, Duke University freshman protested their summer reading book because the subject matter contained homosexual themes and nudity. The book looks at a woman coming to terms with her sexuality and the issues surrounding that, something that heterosexual people don’t have experience about. A book that focuses on this theme would be important to consider to read as a way of better understanding a large community in the world. However, a first year wrote “I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” indicating that the mere idea of homosexuality and nudity needs to be censored and not explored.
The need for a more open discussion about issues, and specifically issues surrounding those the LGBT community, became very evident two months later. In November, someone wrote a death threat including a homophobic slur/ targeting a specific student in a residence hall. Immediately after, students at Duke and surrounding communities stood up in solidarity with the student and other members of the LGBT community. However, someone was still so ignorant and aggressively against someone seemingly because of their sexual orientation at a prominent university. The same university where 2 months prior, some students felt that reading a book about a lesbian was worth kicking up a fuss and boycotting it in a very public fashion.
While I am not part of the LGBT community, most of my friends are heavily involved, and it’s awful to see people still being so ignorant and at times overtly hateful against a group of people they actually know little about. Having books that challenge our ideas is important and valuable to our development through our lives and blindly refusing to consider any ideas that are contrary to what you believe is the root of prejudice and ignorance.
In my junior year, two of the books we read had explicit sex scenes, incest, and rape or sexual abuse. These are incredibly sensitive and mature topics, however they are a reality in our world, just like the existence of the LGBT community. Out of the six books I looked at (The God of Small Things, Woman at Point Zero, 1984, the Stranger, the Handmaid’s Tale, and Never Let Me Go ), only one hasn’t been banned or at least challenged (the Stranger). All of these books contain themes that people consider to be sensitive, mature, or provocative, however that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them. As high schoolers being prepared for college, coming in having read books that encourage you to be critical of existing systems is so valuable as is confronting viewpoints you don’t agree with and learning about other people’s perspectives.